By Blake Baxter
“Sell me this pen,” Leonardo DiCaprio says with an impeccable Long Island accent, in two different scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street. The two scenes take place at very different times in the movie, and in completely different contexts. But they both show what Leo’s character, Jordan Belfort, is at his core. He’s not a brilliant genius or an enviable badass, as he would have you believe, he’s just a skilled but incredibly sleazy salesman, a total schmuck, in fact. On a superficial level, he is unfathomably rich, influential and charismatic, but in reality, he’s hollow, and everything else is, too. Obviously, comprehending this is fundamental to understanding Martin Scorsese’s outstanding and outrageous film, and yet, many seem to have missed that point entirely.
The Wolf of Wall Street has been one of the most highly anticipated films of the past year – and for good reason. I mean, it was directed by Scorsese, the man responsible for such classic gems as Goodfellas and Raging Bull, as well as more recent hits like the gritty 2006 film, The Departed, and the opposite-of-gritty 2011 film, Hugo. Also, it didn’t hurt that it has an excellent cast and a killer trailer. It finally arrived in theaters on Christmas Day, as a stark alternative to the family fare that typically dominates the holidays. The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour long behemoth of a movie, and it’s completely filthy for the vast majority of it. (And profoundly profane! At one point, it crossed my mind that it had to be getting close to a Goodfellas-level of f-bombs. Turns out, I don’t know what I’m talking about; The Wolf of Wall Street has an astounding 506 f-bombs, trailing only – appropriately – a documentary called Fuck. Goodfellas had a mere – by comparison, of course! – 300 uses of the word.) Skeptics, some of which include moviegoers and critics alike, have criticized the movie for being nothing but nonstop sex and drugs. Which, when taken at face value, isn’t totally untrue. But the problem is that to just take something at face value is to throw critical analysis out the window.
To me, it seems that this movie was mis-marketed, and that threw a lot of people off. However, I don’t think this was an accident, and I actually think it was a smart move. Most people expected this to be a true crime story, a classic Scorsese epic, with stockbrokers instead of gangsters; it is, but not in the way that people expected. In actuality, it’s not too far away from being an outright comedy. Surprisingly, it’s one of the funniest movies of the year. Instead of reveling in the extravagant lifestyle of the protagonist and his scumbag buddies, it pokes fun at them and the absurdity of it all. The main characters are successful, but they’re (real life) clowns. Scorsese uses their narcissistic and debauchorous behavior to create jaw-dropping comedic set pieces that you never see coming. Nearly every scene ends leaving you wondering how much more ridiculous it can get; it’s a farcical, and seemingly never-ending spectacle of one-upmanship.
But there is a dark truth lurking beneath the manic glee of Jordan Belfort’s extravagant lifestyle. Jordan isn’t a hero, or even an anti-hero. Jordan is exactly what the scathing 1991 Forbes article, depicted in the movie, says he is: “(a) twisted Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band of brokers,” and his business model is, “pushing dicey stocks on gullible investors”. He’s actually worse than that, though, he’s a cheating and abusive husband, as well as a bad father. He preys upon the weak and those that don’t know better to line his pockets with cash and furniture with cocaine. He makes (slash steals!) money in order to fuel his myriad addictions, women, drugs and status symbols chief among them. Looks are deceiving though, because, really, there’s nothing truly glamorous about Jordan Belfort.
So, that begs the question, why are we laughing at him and his cohorts? These are the kinds of men that put our country in such dire financial straits, after all. Well, that is part of what makes this movie so well done and so smart. Behind each laugh is a sense of inner-wonder as to why you’re really laughing in the first place. It can sting if you’re not paying close enough attention. In that way, it is not unlike the humor of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. It is satire at its finest, because it engages in biting social commentary, while successfully finding humor in what are largely tragic events. And like many examples of satire, it comes from a place of frustration and anger. Scorsese isn’t celebrating Belfort and people like him; he’s simultaneously lamenting and lampooning their existence, he’s critiquing capitalism, he’s indicting the warped execution of “The American Dream,” yet he does so with a remarkably light hand.
How fitting it is that DiCaprio portrayed Belfort and Jay Gatsby, both wayward practitioners of “The American Dream,” in the same year. The Great Gatsby, among other things, shows how you can turn yourself into something you’re not, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, surround yourself with untold riches and excess, but ultimately, still not get what you want, and feel empty inside. Whereas Gatsby is something of a tragic character, Belfort isn’t exactly. The condemnation of Belfort, in the Wolf of Wall Street is far more damning. Gatsby did it all for love; Belfort did it because he was a power-hungry, money-hungry, drug-addled, adrenaline addict.
He struts around, arrogantly bragging about how great his life is, and you might buy in for a while. It’s hard not to be wooed by his wealth, mansion, Lamborghini, breathtakingly gorgeous wife; his ridiculous parties, his adrenaline rush of a career, his constant high. But at a certain point, it gets to be a bit too much – okay, way too much. One of the complaints about the movie is that it’s too long, and repetitive. I would argue – and I’m not the first to make this point – that’s what drives the point home. If you see three crazy parties, then you think, “Wow, this guy has some pretty bonkers parties, wish I could go to one,” but when you see twenty-five, it has a very different effect. Eventually, drinking until you feel like another person and filling your body with enough drugs that you don’t act like a person at all anymore, loses its charm; it forces you to correctly identify what you’re looking at, and that’s not even factoring in all of the havoc being wreaked in the process.
One of the clever tricks that Scorcese pulls off is his utilization of Belfort as the narrator, and an unreliable one at that. Once it sinks in that Belfort’s description of the events as they unfold is his perception, and not, in fact, an objective recounting, it has a profound effect. Sometimes it’s horrifying, other times, hilarious. Oftentimes, the joke is on him, but he doesn’t realize it. DiCaprio as Belfort is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s the best he’s ever been, and that’s saying something; he’s been terrific many times throughout his career, particularly as of late. He was excellent as the ultra-serious, sappy and obsessed Gatsby this past summer, even as the weight of the rest of the movie collapsed around him. In the aforementioned Django Unchained, he was delightful in a surprisingly villainous, albeit comedic turn. But never has he been freer than in The Wolf of Wall Street.
As “the Wolf”, DiCaprio often appears to be more beast than man. There is something very carnal about the way he maneuvers, screaming on the phones, roaring in victory, as well as agony. He is equally savage in the way that he heaves objects, as he is when he ravishes women; everything he does, simply, because he can, and because, it’s not enough. He is raw and unhinged, and it is a sight to behold. Even during – nay, especially during the physical comedy bits, DiCaprio is a force to be reckoned with, including one scene that features an absolutely hysterical and unexpected bit of slapstick that quickly escalates into something terrifying.
DiCaprio is undoubtedly the center of the film’s shallow universe, but his supporting cast is absolutely stellar, as well. Comedic loudmouth turned “serious” actor Jonah Hill (and “his phosphorescent white teeth!”) also gave his best performance to date as Belfort’s right hand man, Donnie Azoff. Rob Reiner drops in to play his easily enraged dad; Matthew McConaughey shows up to play an early mentor/show him the ropes kind of guy for a few brief but memorable scenes. The always-wonderful Kyle Chandler expertly plays the FBI Agent antagonist, because that happens to be the kind of government role that he routinely knocks out of the park. Even Jon Bernthal, A.K.A. Shane from The Walking Dead, gives a solid performance. Cristin Milloti and Margot Robbie also each offer admirable portrayals of two very different love interests. Virtually every cast member is on his or her A-game for this one, and it’s to an exhilarating end.
Some have complained that the film has no plot, which really isn’t very logical, because The Wolf of Wall Street is first and foremost a character study. To DiCaprio’s enormous credit, as immoral and ferocious as his Belfort is, he never truly ceases to be human. He’s not an evil cartoon; he’s a guy gone astray, with a short-sighed worldview and a profound lack of self-awareness, but also a rapacious appetite that is all too familiar. Watching him go from an idealistic rookie to what he is at film’s end is a fascinating journey that doesn’t need plot twists. The movie, essentially, is much more about what makes him tick than it is about what happens to him, (though that part is pretty interesting in its own right).
When Belfort utters the words “sell me this pen” again, it’s certainly possible that it hasn’t all sunk in yet. So much occurrs in those three hours that there is a lot to process. It never came right out and said it explicitly; you have to put it all together yourself. And even when you do, your conclusion could very well be different than someone else’s; that’s the beauty of it, though. There are plenty of messages and meanings that can be taken away from the film. The fact that they are all hiding beneath so much excess – and not the excess itself – is part of what makes it so brilliant.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com, as well as the Chicago Bulls for Yahoo Sports, and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.